By Olivia Tracey
Only days before the events of Sept. 11, our beloved angel, Roma Downey, released her first book, a children’s story about single-parent families called “Love is a Family.”
While I’m unclear as to whether this is a case of divine intervention or random coincidences, I’m certain that this book is, above all, a blessing. Exquisitely illustrated in a wealth of primary colors, it tells a simple and entertaining story showing children that family does not have to be defined by mother, father and child, but by love.
I was first told about this project when I interviewed Roma on the set of “Touched By An Angel” in Salt Lake City last November. Between two full-time jobs as mother and actress, it took her six months to complete. Though the word count totals only 720 words, it was a real work in progress, requiring a discipline of editing and refinement, and a constant reminder to simplify for her audience of children. Indeed, it was a case of having to perpetually peel away the layers of maturity to connect with the mind of a 3-year-old. Mind you, her own 5-year-old, Reilly, turned into quite a creative collaborator, even choosing the lead character’s name, Lily, after her best friend at Kindergarten.
The book is, not surprisingly, based on Roma and Reilly as the Mama and Lily characters. It revolves around Lily, who is worried about arriving with only her mom and no dad to the forthcoming Family Fun Night at her school. She wants what she thinks is “a real family,” like the next-door neighbor, Melissa, with her four brothers and two sisters. However, on arrival at the school gathering, she discovers many of her classmates with only a mom or dad, some living with their grandparents, others, like African-American Tamika, adopted by a childless couple, and Remi, who had no brothers or sisters and was brought up by her dad after her mom died.
“That’s how I grew up, too,” said Mama, a story that Roma knows only too well. Devastated at only 10 years old by the loss of her own mother, Maureen, young Roma was reared by her father, Paddy, in Derry’s war-torn Bogside area. Maureen’s death left Roma’s father a widower for the second time, as he had lost his first wife years earlier, leaving him with four children, Jacinta, Ann, Pat, and the priest in the family, John. Though half sisters and half brothers to Roma, they, because of the age gap, seemed more like uncles and aunts. They had all grown up and departed the nest, leaving Roma and her dad as the family nucleus in the home. Despite the heated political circumstances, it was a very loving home, Roma remembers, her father raising her with fairness, kindness and the discipline and protectiveness of a true father.
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Roma describes it as history repeating itself, pointing out that she was raised by her single-parent father and now she is raising Reilly as a single-parent mother. She also adds that Reilly’s dad, the director David Anspaugh, actively participates in his daughter’s life, seeing and interacting with her regularly. Living in Salt Lake City, which, of course, is Mormon and therefore very conservative, there are fewer cases of divorce than there might be in the more liberal, cosmopolitan states. So, it’s not surprising that only one other child in Reilly’s class is from a single-parent home.
It was this, coupled with her own childhood experience, that sent Roma on a search through the bookstores for a positive story about single-parent families, similar to actress Jamie Lee Curtis’s book on adoption. She wanted to remind Reilly that she is not the odd one out and, likewise, to remind children nationwide and worldwide that love is what a family is all about, regardless of size, shape or color. Unable to find such a book, she wrote her own. Hence, “Love Is A Family.” She also included Reilly in the process and now mom and daughter call it “our book.”
Indeed, it is their book in every sense of the word, even down to the incredible resemblance of the illustrated Mama and Lily to Roma and Reilly. She sent a photo of Reilly and herself to the illustrator, Justine Gasquet, suggesting she might include “a hint of a likeness!” Well, they got that and more.
As indeed will the readers of this charming book. I’ve no doubt that Gasquet’s magnificent illustrations will prove an absolute feast for any child’s imagination, just as Roma’s positive and long overdue message will comfort and inspire many a little heart, whether they be the victims of a divorce, death or the heart-wrenching Sept. 11 tragedy. “Love is a Family” is published by Judith Regan at Harper Collins and is available in all major U.S bookstores and on Amazon.com. Retail price, $16.95. A must for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Especially this year.
Meanwhile, Roma is enjoying another case of history repeating itself, as the ever-popular “Touched by an Angel” has moved back from Sunday to an 8 p.m. Saturday night CBS slot, where it first began in 1994. She has also signed a new and what she calls a “very sweet deal,” where she gets paid more to work less, thanks to the welcome arrival in the show of Valerie Bertinelli.
On the movie scene, Roma gets to play a Scrooge-like character, a meany whose heart gets softened in “Sons of Mistletoe,” which she also produced and which will air on CBS between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As if this isn’t enough, along with Liam Neeson and Sinead O’Connor, she unites for a second time with Phil Coulter to record a spoken-word track entitled “A Fisherman’s Prayer” on his latest album, “Lake of Shadows.”
In February, she will partake in Salt Lake’s Olympic Games ceremonies, carrying the torch, and, of course, our Irish angel continues to make a difference through the various charities she supports, including “Save the Children, Project Children, Make a Wish and Operation Smile.